Ben Bullington had never played Nashville. The Montana doctor who’d lovingly crafted three albums thick with simple details and a voice that has a warm wool gentleness had dreamed of Music City, and iconic American songwriter Rodney Crowell decided it was time.
And so, Crowell, Grammy-nominated songwriter Darrell Scott and rocker/writer/guitar slinger Will Kimbrough decamped at the storied Station Inn for an early set of song swapping and vivid story telling. Along the way, Bullington moved from heavy irony to tender details, story songs that embraced the tangle of reality with a pathos tempered with strength and a sense of truth that has torn edges, dog-eared corners and a solid core.
Engaging a bit of Harry Chapin’s common man-ery, Bullington opened the evening with the even-handed “I Was Born in ’55,” answering a barmaid’s challenge for ID with a walk through all the details of American upheaval during a time of churning social shifts. His voice creaking a bit like an old porch glider, he sings of Elvis when he was shiny, the assassinations of John F Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy who was shot by “that little bastard in LA” and offering the truism: “three great men were dead/ And Nixon was still alive.”
That sense of the new voice that fits right in, that folds over the established textures further enhanced Bullington’s place in circle, drawn ironically as a straight line. He passed in his words “to a Montana regular who happens to live here” and ceded the floor to the formidable Darrell Scott, who penned Patty Loveless’ chilling miner’s dirge while still living “Harlan” and the Dixie Chicks’ plucky “Long Time Gone.”
With waves of faded ebony hair tumbling around his face, a burly white mustache and beard and more than solid frame, Scott’s presence is rugged, and that imbues his songs about forging on, desire and love with a tenderness inside that burl that makes them seem so much more hardwon.
Telling a wry story about camping with Bullington and their children and seeing a bear, which made everyone laugh, then finishing it off with the revelation “bears need fifty to a hundred miles between them…” and confessing, “It was the most solitary thing I’d ever seen,” Scott turned into a song about the way the solitary souls keep their faith over a filigreed acoustic part and some searing slide from Will Kimbrough, who’d been a labelmate of Scott 25 years prior, had shared a town with the Grammy nominee for 21 years and yet had never shared a stage with Scott.
Kimbrough, the eternally youthful once frontman of Will + The Bushmen and the Bis*Quits, was utterly dapper in a vest and button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled back to the elbows. Erudite and funny, he, too, told a bear tale – about his wife on their honeymoon scaring a bear, hiking to Canada instead of their lodge and the far worse fate of the Ranger they told the story to who’d also run into a bear, evoking peels of laughter. Then in only demi-non-sequitur, sang a lovely song about the way love can transform a regular guy into the “Champion of the World.”
Crowell, the obvious draw, relished the moments, the camaraderie, the tale-spinning and the laughter. Having spent years on the road with Kimbrough, Crowell’s tale talked of taking his daughters to Oxford, Mississippi in search of the blues and literature and deciding to go on a quest to meet “Will’s mother.” The tale, unfurling by the moment, culminates in a series of facts: Kimbrough’s mother being from Mobile, an English and French teacher, how schooled her son was before the confession the Houston-born Crowell, long on self-study and big curiosity, found the cross roads between Kimbrough’s confiding to him that the name of “4th century rock star philosopher” Epictetus was pronounced “eh-Pick-tah-TEUS,” not Crowell’s Lone Star notion “Epic-TIE-tuhs.”
As the laughter fell, Crowell began the ebullient down-stroking of his quick-talking “Dancing Circles ‘Round The Sun,” an existential romp through philosophy, living life and the thrill of any moment embraced completely. The chiming chords piling up as Kimbrough and Crowell hammered through verses in close formation, near chanting, tempering that with a bounce that brought the energy in the room up.
Bullington sensed the shift from the somber to the plucky. Reaching into what felt to be an ominous ballad, he proceeded to embrace a slow hanging chorus that paid off in the declaration “I… despise… flies…”
That is the trick of a successful writers night: the unexpected, the harrowing, the touching, but especially the universal. In one song, the good doctor managed to pivot and shoot, rebound, corner and trot away with the ball. If the company was fast, Bllington held his own… and then with grace, passed off again to Scott, who told a story about calling Crowell to sing on a song called “Hopkinsville.” Upon arriving at the studio, Crowell told Scott about his father taking the young boy to said city and putting him on a mule to walk home. Understatedly, he apprised the room, “I knew I had the right man for the song.”
That is the serendipity and surprise of like people sitting in the circle that’s really a line. The song, a working blues shuffle that suggested Merle Haggard’s “Working Man Blues” was euphoric, even as it talked about the backbreaking labor and the girl he loved who was in “Hopkinsville.”
Not to be outrun. Kimbrough talked about “a note,” a single note he knew from Led Zeppelin, a note the Pope decreed should never be played again, a note Kimbrough laughing called “the Devil’s note,” then confessed he had built a song around it.
The quiet acoustic ballad he played could well have been the antidote. “Three Angels” probes the divinity in family, cast against the flawed reality of a mere man continually lifted up by the grace that he’s found. With his deft sense of how to embellish a song, Kimbrough eschewed treacle for basic clay truth about a life he’s inhabited for more than half a decade.
From clay to Mother Earth, as Crowell spoke of being drawn more and more to the blues as a way of getting to the real root. He spoke, too, of being turned on to and by music, by a band the ones who knew back in the early ‘70s all swore by: Mother Earth, a hippie bluesy amalgamation that was as real as it got.
Crowell then introduced the inimitable Tracy Nelson, rarely seen, but always resonate, to join them for a few songs. Nelson, flat slate-colored hair still spilling below her shoulders, has the posture of a proud woman and the voice of the molten global core.
Adjusting her mic at the electric piano, she spoke of the man who left her bereft enough to write her first song, and the women – Linda Ronstadt, Maria Muldaur, Etta James – who cut it before unfurling a series of thick chords and her own gospel meets the street witness/moan “Down So Low,” where it’s not the gone guy who’s laid her out, but the inability to find somebody new.
Sustaining the “Ohhhh…” in “low,” the tremors of agony washed over the crowd, leaving the room torn and broken, bereft in a field of Nelson’s pain. Only Kimbrough’s slide playing, easing into the clenched melody and offering some mirror of the agony in an ecstatic counterpoint broke the tension enough to breath.
Breathing came eventually, as did a standing ovation. The relief in the room was carried Nelson to “Livin’ the Blues Tonight,” a barrelhouse stomper that strides, strolls and saunters through bad ‘hoods, crummy bars, old jukeboxes and her own will to bask in the glow of what she does best.
To follow that force of nature, Bullington enlisted wry commentary. A truculent little song – with spry details about pitch correct and “rum drinks by the pool,” not to mention a rejoinder for turning its back on the Dixie Chicks” – he wielded the Woody Guthrie-feeling protest of “Country Music, I’m Talking To You” with enough Steve Goodman bon vivre to coldcock the truth about the erosion of “this pure lyrical form that is not what it could be, at least what gets through.”
Packing a wallop with a chorus,
“I don’t love you like I used to do…
“You left me, I didn’t leave you…,” the Montana native held an entire industry’s hands to the flame without ever flinching. For the crowd that included Americana Music Association head Jed Hilley, Aussie guitarslinger/songwriter Jed Hughes, video producer/documentarian Joanne Gardner and Crowell’s daughter emergent progressive alt songwriter Chelsea, the song drew smiles that spread like butter across their faces.
For Crowell, that sense of daughters, wives, families and his own history inspired not a song of his own, but a yearning to sing Haggard’s “Farmer’s Daughter.” Embracing the master – who’d been the object of yet another clever tale of following the Bakersfield populist for an entire Songwriters Night – the stakes of a father seeing his daughter becoming someone’s wife was palpably vulnerable and wonderfully real.
That reality is everything when production is eschewed, big stakes and momentum sidelined as the truth is served up as the main event. One of the evening’s truths was unexpressed: Bullington had just been diagnosed with extreme cancer. The prognosis is maybe a year.
Being a doctor, he understands in ways civilians can’t. And being a man of song, he knows the power of words strung like Christmas lights across melody.
Though he never played that card, he basked in what that moment onstage at the Station Inn, where Alison Krauss and Dr Ralph Stanley, the McCrourys and Guy Clark have all held the overstuffed room rapt, meant.
Taking the night’s last turn before the stage was turned over to the next wave of hipster grassers, Bullington, with his crown of thick dark hair and licorice whip thin frame, found a quiet song with a few notes and started littering them with the normal details of a family coming to life. Squabbling kids, an abandoned glass of juice that must be drunk, starting the car, a shirt worn for some new boyfriend all rolled by unceremoniously enough, and then the dangling detail of taking their mother to see the doctor set the stage for a song that runs by so many moments like fence posts, creating the teetering for the rest just beyond the next curve.
Drawing the room in, Bullington maintained the tension on his song: the cold white hospital, the sense of fear never articulated and the meaning of a clean bill of health truly settling in on a homeward bound off-ramp, at a drive-through fast food window.
All stitched up with the returning refrain “twangy guitars on the radio” at every turn, his songs journeys through the way things really happen. After all that turmoil and the brave facades in the face of the unknown, it will be a night of pizza with the kids, getting a tree, knowing this year Christmas will have a real cause for celebration… and the relief will be felt, not sold.
Never flinching, never playing to rheumy sentiment, Bullington unwinds his story – taking the small details that ground reality in such comforting ways, moving to a happy ending that isn’t larger than life or glistening with Hollywood touches.
It is a happy ending in the song. Perhaps for Bullington, the songwriter so few know, just sharing the stage with legends, with lifers, with players like Crowell and Scott and Kimbrough is all the happy his ending needs.
Certainly in a room of love and respect, the notion of being part is heady. It can’t change a life or stop the inevitable, but it can let people be seen and heard and felt. Not even just the performers, but the people sitting in the room listening.
Whether the sold-out crowd realized the O. Henry turn of the singer and his song or not, the idea that a family can face down the thing we all fear and get to an ending where everyone’s okay was affirming. In dire times, just the tangible notion – here writ in song – seems that much more believable by the common details it’s measured in, and the way it pours from a man who looks so much like the rest of us.
Hope from one who may be out of it, for so many looking to believe, it’s music’s most compelling essence. It transcends fame, flash or fashion, arriving humbly from a songwriter/doctor no one really knew and most likely won’t forget.
6 December 2012